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Published: Sunday, 3/23/2003

Renaissance art for the ages

BY SALLY VALLONGO
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

DETROIT - Magnificenza! That's the stylish Italian compliment the Detroit Institute of Arts is using to describe its major new exhibition exploring the impact of patronage by one powerful family on Italian art and design in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Magnificent is exactly the right word for “The Medici, Michelangelo and the Art of Late Renaissance Florence,” which opened March 16.

In fact, this large and splendid collection of paintings, drawings, sculpture, religious objects, decorative arts, books, and metal is so impressive, so over-the-top beautiful that it inspires the search for something to replace the now-tired term, blockbuster. Perhaps between now and the final day, June 8, a new and more descriptive word will be coined.

Numbers tell only part of the story, but they do set expectations. Gathered from 68 museums, galleries, and private collections spanning the globe, the 176 works created from 1537 to 1631 are arrayed in 19 jewel-toned galleries. Organized by Allan P. Darr, curator of European sculpture and design at the DIA, the exhibition was five years in preparation, and involved collaboration with Italian art experts and the Art Institute of Chicago - the only other U.S. venue.

But more impressive than sheer numbers is the scope and the subject matter itself. In a nation mad for airy Impressionism, Renaissance art, although often the backbone of museum collections, fades into the walls and receives short shrift from visitors.

So it's a bold move to focus so much time and attention on art from a period little known to today's art lovers. After all, they may not immediately appreciate the similarities between how wealth and power were utilized 500 years ago to promote a name and to create an image, and how the same impulses manifest today.

And even if the Medicis didn't invent the practice of marketing one's status through art, they certainly perfected it, especially the later generations of this family, “arguably the most famous and powerful of all Italian dynasties,” observes Dr. Darr.

“Under Medici rule, Florence during the 16th century experienced a flowering of the arts through artists and architects such as Michelangelo Buonarroti, Jacopo Pontormo, Agnolo Bronzino, Giorgio Vasari, Benvenuto Cellini, Niccolo Tribolo, Bartolomeo Ammanati, Giambologna, and Bernardo Buontalenti,” he writes in the opening essay in the exhibition catalog.

Most familiar among those names - all represented in the show - is Michelangelo, the sculptor, painter, architect, designer, teacher, all-round artistic force-to-be-reckoned-with who blossomed in the 15th century under the sponsorship of an earlier Medici: Lorenzo Il Magnifico. But this exhibition focuses on expressions of a second round of Medici power, regained after 40 years of family decline.

The opening gallery introduces Grand Duke Cosimo, a handsome man who wed Eleonore of Toledo, and launched a new era of creativity in Florence. A strong image of Cosimo from the workshop of Bronzino, a Toledo Museum of Art loan, is paired with a gorgeous portrait of Eleonore from the same studio, with her son Giovanni (one of 12 children she bore).

Michelangelo, who bridged the two dynasties and helped Cosimo launch his ambitious cultural goals, is the star of the second gallery. His “David-Apollo,” a lifesize figure, unfinished yet as powerful as any more polished work by the artist, is simply stunning. Also in the gallery are several of the rare working drawings by Michelangelo, who destroyed much of his preparatory work.

The next 17 galleries unfold, room by beautiful room, the story of the first design academy created by Michelangelo and the continued artistic progress which followed.

The DIA installation is largely free of the user-friendly touches many museums utilize, allowing space and grandeur in which to give these works long scrutiny. Subtle video screens in a few galleries highlight special points, and, in Gallery 10, a clever evocation of Francesco I's “studiolo,” a private showcase, offers visitors a chance to peek at this secretive Medici's treasures.

Likewise, Gallery 11, a grand space, is transformed into a garden with stone and bronze sculptures which were designed to suit the Medici's complex ideas about horticultural design. Later galleries reveal the elaborate work in inlaid stone, metal, enamel, and fiber which were created in the Medici workshops.

Religious themes are the focus of Gallery 15, with a few items from the DIA's impressive collection of sacred vestments, silver and gilt reliquaries - one holds the apparent jawbone of St. Sixtus - and a spectacular crucifix in silver, gilt, and coral.

The final galleries reveal the movement of artistic taste from the once-revolutionary Renaissance realism through Mannerism and into the next big movement: Baroque art. One of the stars of the show, a haunting oil of Judith holding the head of Holofernes by Cristofano Allori, marks that corner most powerfully. It's a stunning conclusion to a truly Magnificenza exhibit.

Admission to the Medici show is free with paid museum admission, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays. Other days, admission is by timed ticket ($12) during museum hours, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The DIA has planned a series of public programs, which can be seen at the museum Website: www.dia.org.



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